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This note is derived from H.W. Brand's, T.R.: The Last Romantic, pp. 555-558.

Now Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States from 1901 to 1909, was a great reformer. In his first four-year term (3 1/2, actually, since he assumed office after the assassination of President McKinley), he reformed the railroads, he reformed the meatpacking industry, he even reformed the rules for American football. In his second term, perhaps having run out of more obvious things to reform, he turned his attention to English spelling.

Why did Roosevelt do this? It is often mentioned in this regard that Roosevelt was a notoriously poor speller. This in itself was probably the result of the fact he had never spent any time in a conventional academic environment before he entered Harvard. He had poor health as a child and rich parents, so he was educated by tutors, who perhaps were not interested in the type of drills that constitute schooling for less-favored children. More important, though, was that Roosevelt was very language-conscious. He spoke the major modern languages and read the ancient ones. He was also a prolific author on most things under the sun. He was therefore unusually likely to be annoyed by traditional English spelling, since he struggled with it daily and knew that there were alternatives.

The result was that he issued a directive to the Government Printing Office to adopt a list of 300 reformed spellings recommended by the Simplified Spelling Board. He further directed that his report to Congress for 1906 be printed and distributed in the reformed system. Had this order stuck, most federal documents would have been issued in a slightly reformed style starting in 1907. Many of the proposed spellings were obscure scientific terms, and the changes the Simplified Spelling Board recommended did not reflect any general system of reformed spelling. Nonetheless, had the president's order been carried out, a precedent for reform would have been set.

What happened, though, was that Congress went ballistic. A big part of the problem was just that Roosevelt had tried to implement the reform by executive fiat. He had not even tried to get Congressional support for the measure. Although Roosevelt had been successful in Congress during his first term, his success was based on his ability to scare the Right with what the Left supposedly wanted to do, and vice versa. Opposition to spelling reform was one thing they could all actually agree on. Another factor, of course, was that nowhere in the Constitution is there any grant of power to the president to oversee orthography. For that matter, neither is any such power granted to the federal government as a whole.

The upshot was that Congress passed a joint resolution expressing its disapproval of the executive action. The Supreme Court refused on its own authority to use the reformed spellings. Perhaps more surprisingly, in view of Roosevelt's popularity and of the fact that spelling reform was not an unfamiliar idea in those days, the major national newspapers were uniformly derisive. The New York Times, for instance, said that it would treat any reformed spellings issuing from the federal government as misspellings and correct them. Finally, Roosevelt just rescinded the directive. Ironically, many of the recommended changes were already current and most became preferred spellings over time..

As was shown by the fuss that arose in Germany in the 1990s when the government tried to implement a quite minor spelling reform, this can be what happens when a democracy tries to reform orthography.

See also the account at Children of the Code.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly


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